Why the NHL Decided to Open Up More Sponsorship Inventory on the Ice

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TAMPA, FL – JANUARY 28: Brent Burns #88 of the San Jose Sharks skates to the net with the puck during the 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game between the Atlantic Division and the Pacific Divison at Amalie Arena on January 28, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Like any good league, finding ways to bring value to both sponsors and the clubs keeps all parties happy and engaged.

For the National Hockey League, opening up four new in-ice spots starting during the 2018-2019 season was about giving clubs the opportunity to find new camera-visible signage and bringing what the league expects to be a “mid-seven-figure per position opportunity for the NHL during the playoffs.”

“It has always been an area that I am interested in developing. Not to only add more logos, but to deliver more value to our current and potential future sponsors,” said Keith Wachtel, the NHL’s Chief Revenue Officer. “If you look at our partnerships at the club level and what our league partners like when it comes to a league-wide event, in-ice positions are generally your largest partners at the club level that garner a significant amount of television impressions.”

What Wachtel sees as the most unique selling point for these particular positions is the opportunity sponsors will have to be a part of the biggest moments of the game as well as the highlights shared across the NHL’s digital platforms and social media channels.

“When we looked at it and considered other signage opportunities, which there are a lot of others that we have explored and that we continue to explore, we know that those four are extremely valuable. If you think about the way the game is played, most of the action that is comprised of goals, big hits, and saves are done in the corners as opposed to necessarily center ice. All of the various instant replays you will see in games but also across social media and highlight packages generally show a goal, a save, or a big hit.”

The league began testing the inventory this past pre-season in China and then followed up that test with placement at this year’s All-Star Game after what had been a three-year dialogue surrounding the initiative.

“We tested them in China during several pre-season games. Then we moved to the All-Star Game which really allowed us to take a look at them on an NHL rink in front of broadcasters, sponsors, clubs, league executives, and fans,” said Wachtel. “Ultimately, we came to the unanimous decision that we would go ahead and install those for the start of next season.”

Mercedes-Benz Arena on September 21, 2017 in Shanghai, China.

Relying on services like Nielsen Sports and GumGum Sports, the league was able to figure out the amount of time each position would be visible during a broadcast. For the teams that wanted to, many conducted their own analysis given that their broadcast angles might be slightly different than others.

Based on those valuations and what the market will bear is how Wachtel and his team see the inventory being sold, a process that the league will help with but will ultimately come down to how each team will decide to package them.

“How they will sell them is going to be unique to each club. They will most likely package them into broader sponsorship deals, because they are not necessarily interested in selling a brand that position without that brand already being a team partner.”

Unlike the four center ice placements, the league will take over control of the corner inventory come playoff time in order to sell a package that will span across every game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs through the Stanley Cup Final.

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“I look at this differently for us,” said Wachtel. “It doesn’t matter who is in the playoffs and that is the issue with the clubs, you don’t know who is going to make the playoffs so the clubs can’t monetize the playoffs the same way that the league could.”

Although we are still close to a month from a team raising Lord Stanley’s Cup above their head, Watchel and his team are already in the marketplace selling the inventory for next year’s playoffs. The exposure potential and exclusivity of the placements are features that Wachtel sees as a differentiator for the league when it comes to working with global brands.

The league tested the inventory at the All-Star Game this year. (Photo via NHL)

“Right now, we are in the marketplace talking about next year’s playoffs, selling anywhere from two to four marketers and those marketers will be at every game, every night, for every playoff game around the world. Because of that, our primary focus is to sell these to global marketers. We want a marketer that values not only the North American exposure, but also the exposure that we provide in all countries throughout Europe, Australia, and China. We have over 160 countries that broadcast NHL games, especially during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.”

Seeing that this is the first time the league has added new in-ice inventory since the original four at center ice, the question then becomes where the league goes from here and whether or not patches on sweaters may be next. A topic Wachtel was quick to dismiss given what he believes the impact the new corner inventory will have.

“If you think about it, right now teams in the NBA are selling jersey patches. It’s a great idea and they are making a lot of money from those patches. We aren’t ready to do that yet. We are still exploring it. We think our sweaters are different than that of other sports franchises. We also are looking for what we think would be a bigger impact.”